Don't Call Us Sprawl

August 25, 2006
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GAINES TOWNSHIP — In one fell swoop, the construction of the M-6 highway turned the primarily rural Gaines Charter Township into one of the region’s pre-eminent battlegrounds against urban sprawl.

The completion of the South Beltline’s Kalamazoo Avenue interchange created a commercial corridor strikingly similar to that of the East Beltline’s busiest stretch: a new Meijer store, a Celebration Cinema movie theater, a Target and dozens of restaurants and smaller enterprises scattered nearby.

Although many residents rallied against it, even forcing an unsuccessful referendum, the most visible portion of Gaines Township gave way to rapid and expansive commercial growth on top of low-density development sprawling away from the urban core, a phenomenon commonly known as urban sprawl.

“The term ‘urban sprawl’ to me is extremely negative wording,” said Don Hilton, Gaines Township supervisor. “It imparts something that should not be imparted. Show me a city that has annexed land and then farmed it. They call that economic development.

“But if a township were to do something on that land, they call it sprawl.”

The common perception among planning officials is that urban sprawl is a bad thing. At the very least, the infrastructure to deliver water and sewer service to these outlying areas is a significant challenge to the public sector, said Andy Guy, an expert on the subject at the Michigan Land Use Institute.

“It costs money to extend services further and further away from central cities,” he said. “And it happens at the expense of the upkeep and maintenance of what you have already built.”

This is plainly evident, Guy said, in the region’s public school system. Inner-ring schools such as the Grand Rapids Public Schools and a handful of others are suffering from decaying infrastructure and shrinking enrollments, while outer-ring schools are rapidly growing and expanding capacity. At least two new high schools were raised in the past two years in what had previously been fields, neither of which replaced existing facilities.

In 2001, USA Today ranked the Grand Rapids area as the nation’s sixth most sprawling region.

The development in Gaines Township is particularly interesting, Guy said, because the recent growth was the result of public investment.

“The South Beltline was a serious investment of public dollars that has drawn a lot of investment,” he said. “Is sprawl natural or do we make investment decisions that encourage it?”

Hilton agreed with that perception to some degree. The South Beltline has ignited the development of farmland, but the township will make no apologies for it. Township officials have known for 40 years that if and when M-6 was developed, a commercial corridor would be associated with it. The master plan has included such a use for over 20 years. Most of the recently developed M-6 area has been zoned commercial for decades, and was owned by developers for nearly as long.

“There was no surprise to anyone that stopped by the planning office and asked what was going to be happening in that area,” Hilton said.

Yet, there was a clash with residents when Farmington Hills-based Ramco Gershenson announced it would break ground on the roughly 400,000-square-foot Gaines Marketplace in 2004. The development was completed, and the controversy served only to scare away an additional user for the property that would have set aside 19 acres of developing woodland as a buffer between the commercial and residential zones.

Ironically, Gaines has been one of the region’s most successful townships at limiting this type of development. The vast majority of development in the region is residential, most of it concentrated on the Kentwood border near the communities of Dutton and Cutlerville or the new Crystal Springs development. The current board of trustees has indicated it will allow no new commercial development on 68th Street and will severely limit commercial activity south of it.

Despite having a population roughly equal to the city of Grandville and much larger than the cities of Walker or East Grand Rapids, Gaines has managed to maintain its identity as a farming community.

“I told Don he needs to get his perspective back,” said Richard Root, mayor of Kentwood and a close friend of Hilton’s. In 1975, he explained, Kentwood was urban sprawl, with its population of 20,000 people equal to that of Gaines today. Now, the city has swollen to 50,000 and nearly all of its land has been developed.

“We were the fringes of the urban area, but now we are no longer urban sprawl,” Root said. “Now it’s his turn, and we’re the complainers of urban sprawl. To a point, it victimizes a city like ours; we see big boxes moving to the next tier, leaving us with challenges to address.

“One day, Don may take exceptions with urban sprawl, and he’ll be telling people in Caledonia they’re sprawl.”

Root believes that in the not-so-distant future, outer ring areas like Gaines and Alpine townships and Rockford will be folded in as rings of the Grand Rapids metropolitan area, much as Detroit has slowly evolved to include dozens of rings outside of the core city.     

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